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yvonne abraham

Sometimes, a dog is the best medicine

Maestro (left) and Rylie are two of several therapy dogs who build people up at Boston Medical Center and McInnis House.Boston Health Care for the Homeless

“Hey, my babies!”

A small woman, her hair cropped close to her head, her pajamas swimming on her sunken frame, bounded into the airy atrium. She made a beeline for a pair of labs — one blond, one black — so happy to see her that their tails seemed to be wagging them.

“Where’s the reindeer ears?” Rogenia demanded. Last week, the dogs were wearing ears that made them, improbably, even more adorable.

The dogs, Maestro (yellow) and Rylie (black), have been visiting patients here at McInnis House, a recuperative facility run by Boston Health Care for the Homeless, every Thursday morning. The clients here have hit a dismal jackpot: They’re poor, homeless, and ill. Some of them are battling addiction, too. And some of them are very sick, indeed.


When life kicks you this hard, and this often, only someone really special can make it better. Sometimes, that someone is a dog.

Rogenia had just learned she has a serious illness, the kind that requires a daily vigilance that life on the street makes impossible.

“You want to play with me?” she asked Rylie, hugging the dog. Rogenia wants a Rylie of her own. “I want to get something that’s going to build me up,” she said.

These dogs and others just like them have been building people up across the street at Boston Medical Center for four years now. The therapy dogs — some of them trained by inmates in local prisons — give wordless comfort to patients whose pain is unspeakable. They’ve been visiting the homeless clients at McInnis House for about a year.

A dog is all about love. A dog pays no mind to where you’ve been and what you’ve done. A dog doesn’t care what you look like or how you smell. A dog wants you to get close, to stroke a velvet ear, to hold out a treat on your flattened palm. A dog reminds you of a world outside this messed-up one, transporting you to a time before things went wrong.


“I like dogs better than I like humans,” said Karl, a gruff-looking man in a wheelchair, as he petted Maestro. “Unconditional love. They’re always happy to see you. Their tails are always wagging.”

Growing up in New Hampshire, he always had dogs.

“I’d go to school in the morning, they’d follow me to the bus, as soon as the bus got to the stop at the end of the day, the dogs were right there,” he said. “It’s like they had built-in clocks.”

For a moment, his expression was distant. He was back there again.

Suzanne Bossert, a minister who is also Maestro’s human, has seen that look too many times to count. Maestro and the others seem to know exactly who needs them most, she says, and they go right to that person. Maestro will offer somebody a paw or climb up on a couch and lay his head on a lap, and Bossert will see people transported.

“Dogs represent the best of your childhood,” she said. “They’re the best of the outside world. It startles people and puts them in a different place.”

The gifts the animals bring, she said, can seem almost supernatural: “They’re like a hinge between heaven and earth.”

And it’s not just the patients in need of those gifts. On this morning, a steady flow of hospital workers stopped by to pet the dogs and to watch them doing their tricks (sneeze loud enough and Rylie will fetch a box of tissues). They too need respite from days that can be unrelentingly bleak.


“A lot of what we do in health care is devoid of happiness,” said Sheryl Katzanek, Rylie’s owner and the founder of the BMC therapy dogs program, “and the dogs bring momentary happiness.”

Rogenia sat in a cozy armchair, trying not to give Rylie human food, going through the commands she’d learned over the weeks she’d been visiting with the dogs.

“Speak!” she said.

Rylie and Maestro obliged, barking loud enough to stun the group into momentary silence.

Rogenia jumped in mock fright and beamed at the group, delighted at her own power.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com.